NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Kangaroos, Thylacines and Aborigines 4

Why Keith Windschuttle is likely wrong about frontier violence in Australia.


I am putting this précis at the start of each of the four parts of this series, because feedback I get from WordPress tells me it is necessary, at least in many cases. The terms that visitors to this site put into web searches in order to land here indicate that many do not start their reading at Part 1.

At issue here is the question underlying the ‘black armband’ vs ‘white blindfold’ controversy in Australian history. It is not confined merely to Aboriginal history, because it goes right to the heart of the manner and nature of Australia’s European settlement. In these four articles I set out my reasons for concluding that Keith Windschuttle’s major argument in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (2002) is seriously in error, and in its own way a fabrication.

Windschuttle argues that across the history of European settlement in Australia there is no substantive evidence of white-on–black violence amounting to massacre or deliberate extermination; not in any phase of it. He disputes all accounts by historians and others of such massacres; hence his use of the word ‘fabrication’. 

The book in question is the first of a planned three-volume series on Aboriginal history. It deals with the history of the Tasmanian Aborigines, who have disappeared completely as a ‘full-blood’ race, leaving only part-European descendants. Windschuttle sees this not as a result of deliberate genocide on the part either of the colonial government or settlers, but mainly as the consequence of unintentionally introduced disease. Tasmania has both the best colonial records in Australia and the most controversial history in this regard. This led Windschuttle to start there, with Volume 3 of his projected series.

What the historian has to account for is not so much the decline of the Aborigines of both Tasmania and Mainland Australia, but the decline of the ‘full-blood’ populations in both situations. Here recourse to disease as an explanation will not do, because that necessitates an even decline of both Aboriginal sexes. There is no disease known which annihilates men, leaving only or mainly women as survivors.

If there was any surviving ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aboriginal population at all, it would have to include both women and men, which in turn would have led to continuation of ‘full-blood’ populations (as has happened for example in the largely closed-breeding Chinese and Greek populations in Australia). One does not have to be a geneticist to understand that. 

The ‘full-blood’ decline can only be understood in terms of Aboriginal men dropping out of the breeding population, and having their places taken by white men. The dying-out was sexually biased; done far more by Aboriginal men than by Aboriginal women, and the only credible differential cause is colonial-era and colonial-mentality violence.

Call it conflict, massacre or murder; the result is still the same. Young black men were intentionally killed in fights with young white men – fights over black women and black-occupied land, and fights where blacks on foot armed at best with spears and clubs faced mounted white settlers armed with the latest in Western firepower. Sometimes black women were also casualties, and sometimes white men. But the net effect was the otherwise inexplicable decline of the ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal population to zero in NSW, Tasmania and Victoria, and in all but the most sparsely European-settled parts of South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

Windschuttle’s hypothetical diseases would have inevitably wiped out the entire Aboriginal population.

IM, 23 July 2010


Keith Windschuttle is ready to dismiss decline of food resources as a serious factor in the demise of the Tasmanian Aborigines, but the material set out in Parts 1-3 is solidly against him. We are far from ruling out intentional or unintentional (1) starvation of the Aborigines by whites attacking their food resources as a factor. To the contrary, we must rule it well and truly in. And as it is hard to argue that a population that had maintained itself in equilibrium with its environment and resources for 11,000 years was in some sort of process of self-termination, we are faced with the following additional possibilities: (2) frontier conflict and massacres (3) disease and (4) forced removal. Let us now consider (2), (3) and (4) in turn:

(2) Frontier conflict and massacres

Following on the work of Brian Plomley, Windschuttle examined the documented records of Aborigines killed in major clashes with whites, and claimed (Windschuttle 2002) that these account for only 118 aboriginal deaths in the period 1803 to 1831, which covers the years of the ‘Black War’ of 1824-31. His contention is that in that period the written records reveal 187 whites as being killed by Aborigines, and “… the plausible total of blacks killed by whites as seventy-two. No matter how the figures might be revised in the future, the overall conclusion appears inescapable: during the so-called ‘Black War’, more than twice as many whites were killed as blacks.” (Windschuttle 2002, p 364)

I cannot see how a single death of a white settler at the hands of the Aborigines could possibly go undocumented in the records of Tasmania. Moreover, in the case of every such death and amid conspicuous publicity, the whites sought retribution in some form or other. It is all in the documentation cited by Windschuttle himself. Though the settlers mainly professed Christianity, it did not extend as far as turning the other cheek.

But did the Tasmanian authorities ever bring charges against a white settler for the unauthorised or illegal killing of an Aborigine? The answer is no. There is not a single such case in the records of Tasmania, and only a very small number in the whole history of the mainland.

As Andrew Markus shows (Markus,1994, pp 40-54), governors of Australian colonies issued a number of proclamations from time to time in the period of frontier conflict that lasted through most of the 19th Century, to the effect that Aborigines and Europeans had equal rights to protection under the law. But these were not taken much notice of by police or settlers, and the testimony of Aboriginals was not accepted in courts of law. Of cases involving police and other officials charged with crimes against Aborigines, Markus says: “We know of eight cases between 1788 and 1940 in which charges were laid… In only one case, in 1799, was a conviction recorded.

“In only four known cases were Europeans executed for the murder of Aborigines during the period of frontier conflict. The best estimate of the number of Aborigines killed during this period is 20,000; in the nineteenth century a total of ten Europeans are known to have been executed for killing Aborigines – seven in the same case. It is possible that executions took place of which we are unaware, but such unusual events as the hanging of white men for the murder of Aborigines were long remembered and are highly unlikely to have escaped the attention of historians. The Myall Creek trial, for example, was recalled nearly 25 years later by members of the Queensland parliament.” (Markus, 1994, pp 46-7)

He adds further:

“The few cases in which the death penalty was imposed occurred in the colonial period, when governors had some measure of independence from local opinion, the convict population was large, and the infliction of severe punishments was an everyday occurrence. It is no accident that of the ten whites executed, eight were convicts or ex-convicts…

“The Myall Creek trial was a landmark event, frequently cited by historians and the subject of numerous studies, but its full significance is often misunderstood. It provides evidence not of the impartial administration of the law, but – as the great exception, the only trial that resulted in multiple executions – of the colonists’ unwillingness to treat the murder of Aborigines as a crime. ” (Markus, 1994, pp 48-49)

One might add here, and against Windschuttle’s denial that there was ever warfare against Aborigines on the Australian frontier, that when one whole people within the borders of a state are outside the protection of the law of that state, civil war is the reality.

No matter what the law actually says on paper, if authority will not or cannot enforce it then it amounts to no more than wasted ink. Public perceptions on the real state of affairs are reinforced every time there is a known breach or flouting of the law and police inertia in dealing with it. Such happens to be the case right now across Australia in relation to legislation on wildlife protection. It is illegal to shoot kangaroos without a culling permit, and while this stops the illegal commercial trade quite effectively, no farmers or graziers who take the law into their own hands on the matter are ever prosecuted. So aside from the permitted and documented commercial harvest, kangaroos are shot in crops and pastures all the time, and without any documentation, fuss or publicity. That is the inevitable consequence of failure to enforce the law.

This renders fatuous the Windschuttle argument to the effect that ‘it only happened if it was documented and that documentation would stand up in a court of law’. On the other hand it makes Henry Reynolds’ estimate of 20,000 illegal and undocumented killings of Aborigines (cited by Markus, above) in the course of the white settlement of Australia credible. There is also an important paradox operating here: where Windschuttle would say that the absence of apprehension and trial of whites for murder of Aborigines indicates a peaceful frontier, a more realist historian would argue the other way. Windschuttle’s case would have been stronger if there had been a reasonable number of trials of whites for murder of Aborigines sprinkled through the records of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Instead, the records amount to nothing, in marked contrast with those covering whites killing whites, and for that matter, blacks killing whites. Windschuttle is of course completely within his rights as an historian to question all existing accounts of massacres. But he takes a stroll into Fantasyland when he argues that one cannot say it happened if it was not properly documented. He wrote in the first of his series of three Bulletin articles on the subject:

“Given that there are people who have been prepared to invent massacre stories, and given that these rumours can then take on a life of their own, historians should draw a firm line. They should ask hard questions about rumours, second-hand reports and similar evidence from those who were not at the scene of the crime. Historians should only accept evidence of violent deaths, Aboriginal or otherwise, where there is a minimum amount of direct evidence. This means that, at the very least, they need some reports by people who were either genuine eyewitnesses or who at least saw the bodies afterwards. Preferably, these reports should be independently corroborated by others who saw the same thing. Admissions of guilt by those concerned, provided they are recorded first-hand and are not hearsay, should also count as credible evidence.” (Windschuttle, October 2000)

Overall, then, the references Reynolds provides [in his book The Other Side of the Frontier – IM] for his total of twenty thousand Aboriginal deaths in Australia do not establish his claim. At most, they provide evidence that directly verifies 280 shot in Tasmania, 102 dead in Western Australia, 100 killed in New South Wales and five victims in Queensland.

In September this year, I presented this data to a Quadrant seminar in Sydney where it attracted considerable publicity in the news media. Reynolds replied in the press by admitting that his figure of twenty thousand dead was only a guess. However, he said he had spent ten years researching the subject and his guess was both educated and conservative. He had done “a mountain of research” and had published his reading in a 25-page bibliography. Because his work rested on such a great body of reading, people should trust his judgement. This response, however, displays a strange misunderstanding of the historian’s role. Historians should not have to ask people to take them on trust. No matter how much reading they claim to have done, their job is to actually put their evidence on the public record where their readers can assess its plausibility and other scholars check its authenticity. This is especially so in the case of unlawful killings, which some want to play down and others exaggerate. Not only do they have to actually present their evidence, but historians should also tell their readers whether their sources come from direct observations or from rumours several times removed, whether the reports they use were contemporary with events or made months or years later, and whether their informants were indifferent observers or had axes to grind. Neither Reynolds’ text nor his bibliography makes any of these distinctions. Historians who have no comment to make about the reliability of their sources on contentious issues, let alone those who deceive their readers about the content of their own references, are not entitled to be taken on trust. If Reynolds wants to continue to talk about a state of “open warfare” on the pastoral frontier, he has to actually put up his evidence. Until he does, no one should believe him.

(Windschuttle November 2000)

By definition, every massacre story discussed by Windschuttle in The Fabrication is as far as he is concerned, and for at least the greater part, invention. (But he does not anywhere in his book produce an example of such undisputably fictional invention. People more often deny massacre stories rather than invent them.) Much of the debate between the historians on both sides of the barricade in the ongoing ‘history wars’ centres on the disputes over the details of particular events. There is the ‘peaceful settler’ camp, of which Windschuttle can take his position as undisputed leader, out in front of a membership that includes no historians beyond Geoffrey Blainey, but does count as a supporter former Prime Minister Howard. This camp says that the white settlers came in peace, sought peace, and were more victims of violence than perpetrators of it. On the other side, the ‘violent settler camp’ maintains that, whatever the settlers original intentions, in the inevitable disputes over land, wild game and women, the whites used whatever amount of violence was needed to get their way. The logic of the situation compels the opposing sides into fairly understandable lines of attack. The most compelling evidence for frontier violence is the Aboriginal evacuation of the Australian countryside. If they ‘went quietly’ by migration (or disease, as Windschuttle infers) rather than by being terrorised off the disputed lands or persuaded by the tragic examples of others to ‘come in’ to settlements, then they constitute a remarkable exception in the history of population movements and changes as they occurred on all five continents.

The imperatives driving Windschuttle’s writing and research become, in the case of Tasmania, a need to question not just the details of existing accounts of violent clashes between Aborigines and whites, but the very plausibility of them, on grounds such as that they would be against the Christian ethos of the colony. He understandably argues for malevolence on the part of the Aborigines and lack of it in the colonists, for the lowest conceivable population of Aboriginals (2,000) being present (and declining) in Tasmania in 1803, for their own cultural practices as working against them, and for factors other than frontier violence or starvation as an explanation of their total and near-unique demise both as a culture and as a race. This leads Windschuttle to his major hypothesis, disease.

(3) Disease.

Smallpox and the common diseases of the respiratory tract were major killers of populations around the Pacific from the Eighteenth Century onwards. There was a smallpox epidemic among the Aboriginals subsequent to the founding of Sydney. However, even Windschuttle himself can only find evidence of maximum Aboriginal mortality from any of these causes of 50 percent of any given local population. This is in keeping with experience elsewhere in the Pacific. The Tasmanians remain the only distinct racial (ie Negroid) subgroup ever to have been wiped out to the very last woman, though this does not deny that they left mixed-race descendants, like the original likewise exterminated aboriginal populations of Cuba and Hispaniola. Disease, even in the Tasmanian context, remains an unlikely explanation at best. Ironically, Windschuttle’s efforts to reduce and discount the Tasmanian population work against him here, as epidemics are facilitated most by crowded, unsanitary conditions. Scattered and sparse nomadic populations are least likely to suffer, even if their natural ability to resist the pathogens is low.

After the ‘Black War’ of 1824-31, George Augustus Robinson, the Tasmanian Superintendent of Aborigines in the 1830s, organised the transfer of all remaining Aborigines to a settlement on Flinders Island. In this and the later settlement at Oyster Cove on Tasmania proper, epidemic infectious disease per se played no major part in the further decline to extinction of the ‘full-blood’ population. The history of that population is one of early catastrophic collapse between 1803 and 1831, followed by a long and slow decline of the survivors as shown in Table 5, though the death rates were highest amongst new arrivals rather than long-term inmates.

At this point it is worthwhile examining the claims that the Tasmanian Aborigines were not exterminated, but survived. The late Rhys Jones, in The Last Tasmanian (1978), a film he made with Tom Haydon, argued that they did not survive, because with the death of the last ‘full-blood’, Truganini, in 1876 the original race was gone, and the language and culture were gone. While I see the argument as being semantic, and incline to the Jones position, I can see some validity in the opposing claim. In Australia one is an Aboriginal subject to two conditions: if one identifies as an Aboriginal, and if one is also accepted as such by an Aboriginal community.

What is of particular and crucial importance is the manner and circumstances of the Tasmanian descendants, whether we call them ‘survivors’ or something else. They are mainly descended from a population of between 50 and 70 Aboriginal women who lived with white sealer men on the Bass Strait Coast and the nearby offshore islands such as Flinders.

Those original ‘full-blood’ women and their white partners lived by trading sealskins and seal oil with Europeans on the Tasmanian mainland, yet despite the frequent contact with Europeans that this entailed, neither they nor their children were unduly subject to disease. The existence of around 2,000 people living in Tasmania today, and their Aboriginality, rest on this simple fact. Whatever else may be said for it, Windschuttle’s disease hypothesis has a lot of additional explaining to do. How could Aborigines all over Tasmania be dying from common colds, influenza, pneumonia and smallpox, while this population of ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aboriginal women living with the Bass Strait sealers remained completely unaffected?

(4) Forced removal: the clearances of the Aboriginal commons

(4.1) The nature of frontier violence.

There is one simple, undeniable truth in Australian history. Before 1788 the land was populated by the Australoid and Negroid descendants of founding populations which arrived somewhere between 40,000 and 110,000 years BP. While it cannot be said that they had no impact on the continent’s landscape and ecosystems, they had in that long span of varied time come to equilibrium with both. Their populations, as those of any mammal species with a long breeding cycle, must have fluctuated with long and short-term cycles of resources, rainfall and weather, while staying always within limits imposed by the very same environment. Where in pre-1788 space and time there was intra-species conflict, it was generally most profound in its effects on the Aboriginal males, and less on the females, and light enough in its effects on those females of childbearing age to enable the species to continue. In all the prehistory of Australia, there is no evidence to date of severe overpopulation, or of population decline approaching total collapse. In relation to this issue, we may compare Tasmania with the evidence coming from the archaeology of Easter Island, where there is compelling evidence the native Polynesian population there descended into a highly confined range war between opposing groups after crucial resources were exhausted. (Heyerdahl, 1958; Diamond, 2005)

After 1788, and in the regions in Australia closest to the sites of early European settlement, the Aborigines vacated their native range lands or ‘country’ completely, and took up a lifestyle vastly different from their ancestral one, as dwellers literally on the fringe of the country towns and the white populations in them. In more remote pastoral districts they managed to live on, but on terms largely dictated by the white population, which in the mean time moved in to take charge of the country that had previously been exclusively theirs. (This commonly involved them working on the sheep and cattle runs for no wages beyond minimal rations: a situation brought to an end by the famous strike by Aborigines on the NT Wave Hill station in 1966.) But in Tasmania they made the full transition from hunter-gatherer economy without dogs, to one with dogs, to ‘settlement’ residents living on terms totally dictated to them by the victorious Europeans, to final annihilation as a separate race, and all within the space of 73 years.

In the second of the Keith Windschuttle quotations I began with we read:

“…The British colonization of this continent was the least violent of all Europe’s encounters with the New World. It did not meet any organized resistance. Conflict was sporadic rather than systematic. Some mass killings were committed by both sides but they were rare and isolated events where the numbers of dead were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The notion of sustained ‘frontier warfare’ is fictional.”

Though the term ‘guerrilla warfare’ was used by contemporary observers (eg Henry Melville in 1835) whether or not there was one, or a war of frontier or range type between Aboriginals and white settlers should be seen as a semantic issue. In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Windschuttle defines it out of the way: what went on in Tasmania between 1824 and 1831 does not resemble what went on in China during the Communists’ rise to power, nor in Cuba during Castro’s rise, nor in Vietnam from 1947 to 1975, where there were organised irregular forces at war with uniformed regular armies. If by definition in a ‘guerrilla war’ one side at least must wear uniforms, then clearly the supporters of the idea – most notably Brian Plomley, Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds – are out of order, escaping censure only by virtue of the fact that the last of the Tasmanian ‘full-blood’ Aborigines did confront British redcoats in the ‘Black War’ of the 1820s and early 1830s. What we actually see here is a game in which each side works to define the other into a losing position.

Perhaps then it would be better described as a range war, as according to the Wikipedia definition:

A range war (taken from the term “open range”) is a type of (typically undeclared) conflict that occurs in agrarian or stockrearing societies. Typically fought over water rights or grazing rights to unfenced/unowned land, it could pit competing farmers or ranchers against each other. Range wars were known to occur in the American West, especially prior to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which regulated grazing allotments on public land.

The Johnson County Range War is one famous range war, fought between local tenants and gunmen hired by absentee landowners. Many other range wars in the United States were fought by representatives of different industries, especially between cattle ranchers with a fixed base of operations and the more migratory sheep ranchers.

Formal military involvement, other than to separate warring parties, is rare.

While in previous centuries violence may have been involved, the term can also be used for non violent contention for scarce resources, perhaps between ranchers and environmentalists, or between ranchers and fans of wild horses.

( )

I suggest that the precise kind of warfare it was is subordinate to the wider issue of frontier violence, and whether it was ‘guerrilla’ or not is much less important. Though Windschuttle takes considerable trouble to argue that there was nothing like a ‘guerrilla war’ between the Aboriginals and white settlers in Tasmania, as mooted by Plomley, Reynolds and Ryan, and clearly places great importance on victory on the matter, he is left with a problem which he does not address: how to explain the pastoralists’ clearances of the Aboriginal range lands in the Nineteenth Century? Was violence used to persuade the Aborigines to leave, and if so, how was it used? Windschuttle’s Australia is one where the Aborigines went quietly to their fate as fringe dwellers of the country towns, and in marked contrast to their aboriginal counterparts in the Americas and New Zealand.

If there was no ‘warfare’ of whatever category involved in this transition, then the attendant and marked depopulation of the countryside and Aboriginal population decline can only be due to starvation and/or disease. Windschuttle won’t have starvation, but at the same time there are problems with the disease hypothesis that beg for a remedy, an explanation, or at the very least, a Band-Aid: which leaves warfare of some kind hanging around in the background.

And so we come to the elephant in the parlour of Aboriginal history.

(4.2) The rise of the mixed-ancestry population.

Unfortunately the statistical record leaves much to be desired, but Table 2 gives as full a set of statistics as one will find. (See Table 5 for separate Tasmanian aboriginal statistics.) It shows that in all the colonies of Australia white men outnumbered white women to an extent that many of the former must have found painful. I am not the first to point to the colonial white population’s sex ratios as a source of trouble.

The table shows that in every colony up to 1851, the numbers of white females fell considerably short of the numbers of white males. Table 6 below shows the ratios of white males to white females in each of the colonies from 1821 to 1851. NSW and Tasmania had the highest male/female sex ratios, approaching 4/1 in the case of Tasmania in 1821. The higher the ranking in the table below, the more single white men there were without partners of the opposite sex, and thus the higher the pressure on local aboriginal women to accommodate, one way or another, these mens’ sexual needs.



1 TAS 1821 3.89
2 NSW 1831 3.08
3 AUST 1831 3.01
4 TAS        1831 2.90
5 AUST 1821 2.81
6 NSW 1821 2.65
7 TAS 1841 2.21
8 TAS 1811 1.96
9 AUST 1841 1.88
10 AUST 1811 1.84
11 NSW 1841 1.84
12 NSW 1811 1.82
13 WA 1851 1.81
14 TAS 1851 1.71
15 WA 1841 1.62
16 VIC 1851 1.48
17 AUST 1851 1.42
18 NSW 1851 1.35
19 SA 1841 1.30
20 SA 1851 1.28

The European men gathered aboriginal women for sexual partners, so an obvious and most important question arises: what were the Aboriginal male contemporaries of these women doing while all this was going on? Did they just cheerfully accept it? And how were the inevitable births of mixed-race children seen and dealt with?

In asking these simple questions we see the answers form fairly readily. Throughout the biosphere, male organisms compete vigorously with each other for the right to sire progeny by females who are sufficiently willing, fertile, able and available. This includes Homo sapiens. Cultural practices regarding out-of-wedlock unions may differ, but they never force chastity onto young men while not doing so for young women. (There may be exceptions to this, but I have never heard of them. Neither has any Hollywood producer.)

There are easily understood explanations for this, well set out in the modern literature of neo-Darwinism. In the answers to those questions, we find we are dealing with the early 19th Century beginning of the steady process of lightening of the Aboriginal skin and native gene load, which reveals more clearly than anything else who the victors in the black-white sexual contest really were. The resulting statistics for the ‘full-blood’ and part-Aboriginal populations are set out in Table 2, which I reproduce in Table 7 below in abbreviated form for convenience.


‘FULL-BLOODS’ 130 0 12 000 3 128 9 905 0 20 120   0 44 605  
PART ABOR-IGINAS 23 000 3 500 29 700 4 632 11 985 ? 4 000 ? 77 495
1966 TOTALS 23 130 3 500 41 700 7 760 21 890 ? 24 210 ? 122 100

As can be seen, the thinning out of the ‘full-blood’ population proceeded from the south to the north, reflecting the densities of the white populations in each area which ultimately became a state of the Commonwealth.

There are numerous anecdotal accounts of senior Aboriginal men taking mixed-race babies from their mothers at birth or shortly afterwards and killing them. (We might call this ‘racist infanticide’ to distinguish it from the ‘lean-diet infanticide’ practised in lean years.) Such practices continued, from some accounts, into the 1960s in the remote northern areas of Australia, the last places where it is likely to have been practiced.

According to Xavier Herbert, in his last interview:

The black man knew the very day Captain Cook turned up – or at least Captain Phillip – they were doomed. They’ve always known that. But they won’t give in, because of their pride.

I want to know how far their pride goes. I want to know what is the attitude of a black man to a yeller feller (of mixed race) and a yeller feller to a black man. It used to be simple one time, that they just killed the yellow child. “Too much I been eat ‘em white man flour.” As their mothers used to say, and dong and wipe them. Monsters at first. And then later on they regarded them as something like themselves. But they always grew up odd, they’ve never liked it. They’re very loving people, in their family, it’s only when they were regarded as monsters formerly that they would kill them. And also when they first came, the blacks were suffering frightfully from the dispossession of their hunting grounds. They suffered frightfully and before they could adjust themselves, they were starving. And they were not above killing children, before, you see, and eating them.

(Richards, 1985 (2), 21)

A massive change in Australia’s ecology began on that day tens of thousands of years ago when the first ancestors of the modern Aborigines made landfall on some stretch of northern or western coast. Another massive change, this time in human gene frequencies, began the day the first mixed-race baby was born.

If a boy, he might have acquired a clan and totem affiliation from his mother, if transmission of those was matrilineal in his tribal group (Elkin, 1954, pp. 85-89) but would have had no father to supervise his passage around puberty from childhood to Aboriginal manhood. He would have grown up at a distinct disadvantage in comparison with his ‘full-blood’ peers. As Barbara Watterson has observed, “Maternity is a matter of fact; paternity is a matter of opinion,” (Watterson 1997), but we might add that the birth of a ‘half-caste’ baby to a ‘full-blood’ mother makes it less so. As the population of mixed-race children grew, its boys of roughly the same age group would have had at least the dubious consolation of a white paternity in common. Conceivably, numbers of children of uncertain but clearly white paternity were born to Aboriginal women. What is certain is that the situation outlined in the statistics of Table 7 was the result of a steady process of gene accumulation. It did not happen quickly.

Three examples out of tens of thousands may illustrate the process. The first is the prominent Aboriginal leader, the late Charles Perkins.

Perkins’ grandmother Nellie Errerreke Perkins was a member of the Eastern Arrente people and was born in Artunga, east of Alice Springs, NT. Her mother and father were both killed in violent clashes with white prospectors after gold was discovered in the 1890s. A white miner named Burke Perkins took up with Nellie, who cooked for him, worked with him, and bore him three children, one of whom was Hetti, Charles’ mother; born at Arlturga around 1900. Perkins became ill from arsenic poisoning, left his family and subsequently died in Alice Springs. Nellie died in 1947.

Hetti was brought up around the mines, and at age 14 was working around the local pub. She had a child by one miner, who left her to go to World War 1. Another miner took up with her and she had two more children by him. He in turn went to the war, and his brother took up with her, fathering five more children by her. After 1912 the mining boom at Arltunga collapsed and Hetti worked on pastoral stations for a few years before being sent by a policeman to the Jay Creek settlement for ‘half-castes’. About 1935, Hetti met another ‘half-caste’ named Martin Connelly. His mother was of the Kalkadoon people from the Mt Isa region of Queensland, and his father was an Irish kangaroo shooter and sandalwood collector. Hetti bore two children to Martin Connelly, and named the first, who was born in 1936, Charles Nelson Perkins. Charles did not meet Connelly until 1969, when he was 33 years old. In 1971, Connelly died.

Numerous other similar family histories of modern Aboriginal people with at least one white male by Aboriginal female cross in their ancestries are on the Internet or have been otherwise published. Both Charles Perkins grandmothers were ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal women, and both his grandfathers were Europeans, illustrating the Aboriginal x European cross rule stated above.

The other examples we might select from thousands of possibilities are those already mentioned: of Eubena Nampatjin and the white fathers of her children, and finally, the Bass Strait sealers and their Tasmanian Aboriginal women. The outstanding fact about these women is the fact that they survived, when all their mainland kindred were perishing, becoming as noted, outstanding amongst that small minority of Tasmanian Aboriginal women who left descendants.

‘Full bloods’ today are confined to the remaining regions of the continent where indigenous languages are still spoken. (See Map 5 above.) As Aborigines were declining in Tasmania, indigenous genes in mainland populations were also in frequency fall, as ‘full-blood’ women, for reasons we shall surmise below, preferentially mated with white men, in the manner of Charles Perkins’ grandmother Nellie and his mother Hetti, to produce mixed-race ‘half-caste’ female children, who in turn preferentially took white or part-Aboriginal partners to produce populations that by 1966 in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania had essentially no ‘full-bloods’ left. That is, 178 years after Phillip began the colony of New South Wales, and perhaps 8 generations later.

This indicates in no uncertain terms a lack of ‘full-blood’ males in the breeding population, and survival chances below the norm for ‘full-blood’ children in areas where white populations had greatest density, namely Tasmania, NSW, Victoria, south-eastern Queensland, south-western WA, and the Murray Valley region of SA.

Presumably the same woman giving birth to children sired by two or more fathers, as in the Perkins and Eubena Nampatjin examples above, was not uncommon. The fathers of a woman’s children could conceivably include both, ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal and white men, and perhaps across generation lines. But the day that first mixed-race baby was born, young ‘full-blood’ mens’ chances of becoming fathers started to diminish. The only way one can arrive at a 100 percent mixed-race population starting from a population of ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal women is by lowering the probability of ‘full-blood’ to ‘full-blood’ matings and allowing them to diminish to zero. This does not happen in the first generation, but as long as ‘full-blood’ men are mating with ‘full-blood’ women, it will not happen at all. Most importantly, if ‘full-blood’ men are mating with part-Aboriginal women, their progeny will tend back to full aboriginality, both genotypically and phenotypically. Clearly then, for the reality we now know to occur, ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal men had to steadily drop out of the breeding population.

Some time in the 1840s, the Aboriginal and European populations of Australia reached parity, and for NSW the parity year was probably in the 1820s. Table 2 shows that in NSW by 1831 the white population was numerically equal to the ‘full-blood’ population of 1803, but that by 1861 the total ‘full-blood’ and part-aboriginal population of NSW was down to 16,000. If the population as a whole is falling and the ‘full-blood’ component of it is falling as well, the unavoidable conclusion is that ‘full-blood’ men are not siring children by ‘full-blood’ women. Each new generation of boys entering manhood contains proportionately less ‘full-bloods’ than the one before it. Increasingly the next generation’s children have mixed-race or white fathers. In order for part-Aboriginal children to be born, there have to be as an absolute pre-requisite, ‘full-blood’ or part-Aboriginal mothers, as there were no white women giving birth to babies conceived with Aboriginal or part-Aboriginal fathers.

If we designate the people involved in the first inter-racial mating as Generation -5, then the progeny of the women involved become Generation -4, their progeny Generation -3 and so on. We can construct charts illustrating some of the possibilities inherent in the process. If in let us say, Generation -4 there were ‘full-blood’ babies being born, and part-Aboriginal babies had diminished chance of survival due to ‘racist infanticide’, an essential co-factor in the process was a corresponding increased probability of ‘full-blood’ males not becoming fathers, which in nature and in any other species translates as not living long enough to become fathers. Therefore there was a differential survival rate between ‘full-blood’ males of Generations -5, -4, -3… and ‘full-blood’ females of the same generations. Since we have already visited that topic and found in the case of the Bass Strait sealers’ women no known disease that can account for this, and as all known pathogens strike males and females with about equal virulence, we need another explanation as to why ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal men dropped out of the breeding population in Tasmania, NSW and Victoria, but not ‘full-blood’ women to the same extent or anything like it. If ‘full-blood’ men of Generation -5 (say) were mating with part-Aboriginal women of Generation -4, the resulting progeny would have enhanced Aboriginal genotypes, (ie more ‘Aboriginal genes’ than European), and would tend back to aboriginality in physical appearance, and through nurture, their culture and language.

Different survival rates of ‘full-blood’ men and ‘full-blood’ women mean different rates of morbidity and/or mortality. So where did the young ‘full-blood’ men go?

They had to go somewhere. Without high elevated mortality of ‘full-blood’ males in each succeeding generation, there would still be a ‘full-blood’ southern population today, just as there is in the north and north-west, where the Aboriginal languages survive. Those ‘full-blood’ men had significantly higher mortality than their female equivalents; enough to have the profound short-term effects on the southern Aboriginal populations that we have seen. Moreover we cannot invoke disease as the explanation, significant as that was in overall Aboriginal morbidity and mortality, because we are seeking to explain an inferred but incontrovertible differential mortality.

So we must conclude that it is highly probable that the Aboriginal men who dropped out of the breeding population were, at least in large part, the southern counterparts of the young men run down by Ted Jones and his mates in the Channel Country of Queensland, the parents of Nellie Perkins, and a myriad of unpublicised, undocumented and rarely spoken of similar instances, sufficient to persuade enough of the surviving women to seek refuge in the towns or the stockmen’s’ camps with white men who were ready to offer support and protection in return for sexual favours, as the sealers had to the Tasmanian women before them. How much violence was there on the frontier? Enough to persuade the Aborigines to clear off the sheep and cattle runs. Otherwise, they would still be there today, because they did not go willingly or go with good cheer.

The resulting Aboriginal ‘full-blood’ death rate was sufficient to drop ‘full-bloodedness’ down to the levels shown in Table 2 for 1966, at which point comparisons get decreasingly precise, as the statisticians start to include in the ‘full-blood’ category people with one European parent.

Because the original pure white by ‘full blood’ matings followed the Aboriginal x European cross rule, important consequences flow, having arguably greater effect on outcomes for male descendants than female. This is because the ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal woman who mothers a part-Aboriginal female child will likely treat it as if it were a ‘full-blood’ in terms of enculturation. But in the case where a male part-Aboriginal child is born to a white father and a ‘full-blood’ mother in Generation –4, he will likely miss out on much if not all of the specifically male enculturation that passes only from father to son down the line of patrilineal descent.

Each of us as individuals has a personal ancestry that can be set out on a two-dimensional page as follows:

(NB For some reason the WordPress system has decided to trump my word processor and has added an empty bottom row to each table. It is too temperamental to remove it. The reader should disregard it.)

0                                                                                                                M
1                                                       M                                                        F
2                          M                           F                           M                            F
3            M             F            M             F            M             F            M             F
4    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F
5 M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F


Diagram 1 (above): Basic Ancestry Diagram

 In the above table, the generation number G is are in the leftmost column, the generations being counted backwards into the past.  The ancestors at each generation level  are shown, with the number of individuals at each level in the ancestry diagram being 2^G. (2^0 = 1, 2^1 = 2, 2^2 = 4, 2^3 = 8, 2^4 = 16, 2^5 = 32.)

An M denotes a male, and an F a female. It should be noted that such a diagram would only in rare circumstances be a ‘family tree.’

We now apply this in the diagrams that follow to the issue of Aboriginal ancestry. White males in Generation -5 are denoted by plain text M; ‘full-blood’ males in Generation 5  by a bold-text and underscored  M.  Likewise ‘full -blood’ males In generations upwards: -4, -3, -2 and -1 by a non-underscored boldface M, which thus denotes a  male of part-aboriginal genotype. Similarly an F anywhere in the diagram denotes a female of ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal genotype, and an ordinary non-underscored F a woman of part-aboriginal genotype. 

Diagram 2 below shows the effect on the genotypes of the generations descended from Generation –5 if 50 percent of the males in Generation –5 are white men mating with ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal women. It can be seen that this causes ‘full-bloodedness’ to disappear completely for descendants of both sexes in two generations of descendants. This helps explain the total loss of ‘full-bloods’ from the populations of NSW, Tasmania and Victoria, and the spread of ‘part-Aboriginality’ through the populations of SA, WA, NT and Queensland.


(For ease of reference, the key below is repeated above all diagrams.)

M = ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal male

F = “full-blood’ Aboriginal female

M = mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry male

F =  mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry female

M = non-Aboriginal (eg European) male

 The (negative) generation number for each generation is in the column on the far left.

0                                                                                                                M
1                                                       M                                                        F
2                          M                           F                           M                            F
3            M             F            M             F            M             F            M             F
4    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F
5 M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F

Diagram 2: An ancestry with 50% of male ancestors being non-Aboriginal (eg white) men at Generation

 – 5.  We see that if half the males are randomly replaced with whites in Generation -5, ‘full-bloodedness’ can be completely gone by generation -3;  ie in 2 generations.

 ANCESTRY DIAGRAM 2.1 (below):

M = ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal male

F = “full-blood’ Aboriginal female

M = mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry male

F =  mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry female

M = non-Aboriginal (eg European) male

 The (negative) generation number for each generation is in the column on the far left.

0                                                                                                                M
1                                                       M                                                        F
2                          M                           F                           M                            F
3            M             F            M             F            M             F            M             F
4    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F
5 M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F


Diagram 2.1:  This is a variant on Diagram 2. Here we see that ‘full-bloodedness’ can be preserved for a maximum of 4 generations, even if 50% of the males at Generation -5 are non-Aboriginal.


M = ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal male

F = “full-blood’ Aboriginal female

M = mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry male

F =  mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry female

M = non-Aboriginal (eg European) male

Diagram 3:  An ancestry with 25% of male ancestors white men at Generation –5.  If a quarter of the males are randomly replaced with whites in Generation -5, ‘full bloodedness’ is completely gone by generation -1, ie in 4 generations

The (negative) generation number for each generation is in the column on the far left.

0                                                                                                                M
1                                                       M                                                        F
2                          M                           F                           M                            F
3            M             F            M             F            M             F            M             F
4    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F
5 M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F


M = ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal male

F = “full-blood’ Aboriginal female

M = mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry male

F =  mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry female

M = non-Aboriginal (eg European) mal

The (negative) generation number for each generation is in the column on the far left.

0                                                                                                                M
1                                                       M                                                        F
2                          M                           F                           M                            F
3            M             F            M             F            M             F            M             F
4    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F
5 M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F

Diagram 4: An ancestry with say only one out of 16 male ancestors at Generation –5 a white man

Phenotypically, the male at Generation 0 would be indistinguishable from a ‘full-blood’ Aborigine.

With only 1/32 of ancestors at Generation –5 a white male, the black male at Generation 0 will be impacted minimally by his white ancestry in terms of all the factors contributing to his aboriginality, including genetic and cultural transmission, provided that ancestral white male is not in the line of male cultural transmission. In the example above, this would not be the case. If the white ancestor was at the extreme left hand end of Generation –5, there would essentially be no genetic difference, but a cultural one arguably as profound as that shown in Diagram 2 (above). While a given boy’s ‘full-blood’ uncles may perform a father’s enculturation role in his place, this will clearly be diminished to the extent that they too become part-Aboriginal. The situation depicted in Diagram 2 rapidly becomes a male enculturation catastrophe for the Aboriginal population concerned, and the situation in Diagram 3 not much better.


M = ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal male

F = “full-blood’ Aboriginal female

M = mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry male

F =  mixed European-Aboriginal ancestry female

M = non-Aboriginal (eg European) male            

The (negative) generation number for each generation is in the column on the far left.

0                                                                                                                M
1                                                       M                                                        F
2                          M                           F                           M                            F
3            M             F            M             F            M             F            M             F
4    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F    M     F
5 M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F M F

 Diagram 5: How a male at Generation 0 can culturally inherit full aboriginality with only 1/16 Aboriginal male ancestors at Generation –5. This occurs because an unbroken line of father-to-son transmission of Aboriginal culture is still both possible and likely, rising up the left hand edge of the diagram.

The fact that inter-racial matings at whatever generation level never, until relatively recent times, involved any significant number of white women has important implications and consequences, particularly for cultural transmission down the male line. A part-Aboriginal son of a ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal woman and a white man would have had a low probability of normal enculturation as a male member of the tribe, clan or band. The problem of the ‘half-caste’ belonging to neither the white or black worlds has been well explored in the literature of anthropology, and has had arguably important consequences, particularly in the 19th Century, for Aboriginal male identity. White fathers of ‘half-caste’ boys in the circumstances of the frontier where such matings routinely occurred would have had far less opportunity and reason to take part in their sons’ education and training, even if they were interested in doing so. This arguably set in motion a train of demoralisation and despair which passed down the male line in Aboriginal communities to the present day, thanks to the burgeoning of the part-Aboriginal population in the 19th Century, which resulted from the Aboriginal x European cross rule in the first few generations after 1788.

My conclusion therefore is that the failure of the disease hypothesis to explain the decline of Aboriginal populations, and the very high incidence of mixed-race individuals in the Aboriginal population that emerged from the 19th Century, makes frontier violence the strongest explanation of the facts as known. Nothing else comes close.

For the ‘lightening’ to occur, a significant number of ‘full-blood’ black males had to be displaced as fathers of the children born to Aboriginal women, both ‘full-blood’ and ‘part-Aboriginal.’ Disregarding other factors, opportunities for both heritage classes of women to mate subsequently with ‘full-blood’ Aborigines likewise had to remain significantly lower than the probability of mating with whites, or the ‘lightening’ would have gone into reverse. A diminishing number of ‘full-blood’ males in the Aboriginal population overall explains this phenomenon in part, but to this we must add the survival advantages to Aboriginal women of forming a permanent relationship of cohabitation with a white man: a ‘combo’ as such were commonly known. The very process of frontier violence that led to the demise of the ‘full-blood’ men arguably provided the ‘full-blood’ women with the most powerful persuasion that sleeping with the enemy was the safest course. They were not the first women in history to have discovered this.

Windschuttle, in order to maintain the thesis he sets out in The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, has no course but to argue that the ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal men yielded quietly, willingly and above all without violence as they were removed from the breeding population. Most importantly, he has to maintain that this removal did not involve their physical demise. The population statistics do not support such a position.

Nor does it offer any explanation for the most profound fact to strike the visitor to practically any country town south of tropical Australia, who sees Aboriginal and white individuals moving past each other in the streets as if living in a regime of apartheid, and who asks: where are the people of pure Aboriginal descent? Because the most salient fact in most inland towns is that there aren’t any.

Finally, let us revisit Windschuttle’s opening proposition:

…The British colonization of this continent was the least violent of all Europe’s encounters with the New World. It did not meet any organized resistance. Conflict was sporadic rather than systematic. Some mass killings were committed by both sides but they were rare and isolated events where the numbers of dead were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The notion of sustained ‘frontier warfare’ is fictional.

The conquest (for that was what it was) of Australia by British-led colonists of the European Judeo-Christian tradition was, I submit, as violent as it needed to be to overcome Aboriginal resistance. That resistance was in turn as organised as was possible within the limits of capability of a dispersed population of nomadic hunter-gatherers and their technology, based as it was on stone and wooden tools, implements and weapons. It was the same Britain that had previously conquered much of North America and that went on to conquer New Zealand. In North America the invaders encountered peoples capable of organising fighting units sufficiently large to take on, and sometimes defeat, uniformed cavalry units of the US Army: the same army which had defeated the British redcoats in the War of Independence. In New Zealand, British Army units whose soldiers had gained previous experience in colonial warfare in Afghanistan and elsewhere clashed in the Maori Wars with warriors of an agrarian pre-industrial village civilisation, who repeatedly demonstrated, before being finally overcome, superior strategy and tactics, defeating soldiers armed with mid-Nineteenth Century firearms, and without access to any metal weapons of their own.

Settlers in Australia were reasonably well informed of events abroad. In the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a large body of around 1,200 Sioux, Crow, Shoshoni, Lakota, Yaktonai, Santee, Northern Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne warriors led by Chief Crazy Horse overwhelmed the 700 or so men of the US 7th Cavalry led by General George Custer. (It took place on June 17, 1876; news of it had reached the outside world by July 4, 1876, somewhat dampening the US Centenary celebrations.) The massacre of Wounded Knee took place as late as 1890. In North America and New Zealand, units of uniformed soldiers were called upon to achieve objectives that were impossible for dispersed populations of European settlers. The armed settlers themselves achieved the same objectives in Australia without assistance from the uniformed forces of the state, beyond that supplied locally by units of mounted police. What has become known as the ‘Black War’ in Tasmania affords us the only example in Australian history of the use of uniformed soldiers (as distinct from police units) against Aborigines, which in the annals of colonial war must rank as one of the most minor of operations.

I began with two quotations from Keith Windschuttle, the first of which I will ask the reader to peruse in the light of everything above:

…The British colonization of this continent was the least violent of all Europe’s encounters with the New World. It did not meet any organized resistance. Conflict was sporadic rather than systematic. Some mass killings were committed by both sides but they were rare and isolated events where the numbers of dead were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The notion of sustained ‘frontier warfare’ is fictional.

A great many Aborigines willingly accommodated themselves to the transformation. They were drawn to and became part of the new society. Many other, however, were subject to a policy that kept them separate from the white population. The officials who initiated this strategy claimed it was to protect them from white violence and white exploitation. However, the worst crime Australia committed against the Aborigines was not violence or exploitation, but this very policy of separating and interning them on missions and reserves. Those who did this are still celebrated by historians today as great humanitarians and as the Aborigines’ friends. These volumes severely question that assessment.

(Keith Windschuttle, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, 2002, pp 3-4)

The reader may by now agree that “the officials who initiated this strategy [and] claimed it was to protect them from white violence and white exploitation” probably had a point, however self-interested it might have also been.

And in addition:

We now inhabit an intellectual environment strongly influenced by the purported ‘linguistic turn’ in the humanities in recent decades. This is the notion that French poststructuralist philosophy and literary theory, sometimes linked under the title of postmodernism, but today more commonly called ‘cultural studies’, have toppled the old certainties of Western culture. Let me summarise their assumptions:

1. Truth is a relative rather than an absolute concept. Different cultures produce their own, different “truths”.

2. Neither the human sciences nor the natural sciences provide us with what can be called knowledge in any absolute sense. We invent scientific theories rather than make scientific discoveries. Different cultures have different “ways of knowing”.

3. All observations are contaminated by the prevailing ideology or culture. Hence there can be no value-free observations, a claim that is fatal for the idea of objective, empirical research in any of the social or natural sciences.

4. History is not fundamentally different to myth or to fiction. When historians look at past cultures they cannot be objective, nor can they escape the cocoon of their own culture.

(Windschuttle, Dec 8, 2001)

From what I have read of and about Postmodernism, and mercifully little of it has permeated into Aboriginal history, I believe the above summary to be fair. I also believe that acceptance of those four propositions implies that ‘anything goes’, at least in the humanities, leading unsurprisingly to loss of interest in learning and research in practically any field the Postmodernists lay their benighted hands upon. As I do not think that the first two propositions in the list are very relevant to my purpose here, or for that matter bear scrutiny, I will not consider them further. Proposition 4 looks like a total condemnation of any kind of history imaginable, let alone already those already extant. History can serve as the basis of myth, and be fashioned into it. But the historian’s task is largely about separating the two, and of creating a story of the past that puts greatest emphasis on explaining and accounting for present reality, and less on justifying it.

Proposition 3 is a re-statement of an idea put forward by EH Carr in his classic of historiography What Is History? (1961) It is the deep end of the pool, and novice historians ignores it at their peril. The historian tries to nail down objective facts the way a surveyor seeks out geodesic benchmarks. The more known and out-of-dispute points there are, the better the map that can be drawn. But they will never all be established, and in any case, a fully detailed map would be as big as the world itself. Thus selection is necessary, involving selection criteria, inescapably involving the subjective judgment of the historian. Goodbye to strict objectivity, but not to useful writing about the past.

In his anti-Postmodernist writings one finds Windschuttle giving a well-argued case against each of the four propositions above. Those pieces (see References 1 below) are very entertaining to read, even if the examples of Postmodernist thought he selects for deconstruction (or should that be demolition?) make easy targets. He cruises through them like a semi-trailer in overdrive. But when he turns his critical faculties on those he targets as the fabricators: the historians of the Tasmanians: Plomley, Reynolds, and Ryan in particular, he has no choice but to get down through his gears for an uphill slog, distributing his critique in roughly equal portions between disputation over sources on alleged massacres on the one hand, and matters of definition on the other: in particular, was there a ‘guerilla war’ in Tasmania in the 1820s and 1830s, and was there genocide?

In wrestling with the tar baby of Postmodernist history, Windschuttle manages to avoid getting stuck in the tar himself, at least most of the time. But just as the logic of his position inclines him to a minimum estimate of the pre-1803 population of Tasmania, it also leads him to turn on the Aborigines themselves, and to try to make a case that they were ultimately responsible for their own demise. In The Fabrication of Aboriginal History he attacks the people he accuses of being ‘fabricators’ with a full-frontal assault. But beneath that is the quieter reality that he never has a sympathetic word at all for those indigenous people whose case he claims they have so grossly mispresented.

It appears that he cannot afford to. They died out just like the thylacines, but according to Windschuttle they were not effectively outlaws, there were no massacres, no ‘guerilla war’ and no genocidal policies on the part of the state. Their demise has to be put down to a combination of disease, their predilection for thievery and assault on innocent settlers, and their own cultural degeneracy and self-destructive customs, such as giving sexual access to their women to eager white males. Their population was in decline, they were on their way out, and introduced diseases rang down their final curtain. There is never a word of sympathy, understanding or empathy for a people fighting to preserve the way of life they knew and loved. The ‘fabricators’ have chosen for themselves a role as spokespeople for and defenders of the Aborigines. Windschuttle’s ultimate strategy against the ‘fabricators’ is a series of direct attacks on the Aborigines they seek to defend: a full-frontal blaming of the victims.

Windschuttle maintains that:

1. What is known as The Black War was not a war: Windschuttle quotes a dispatch from Governor Arthur written in November 1830, at the height of what became known as the Black War, as follows:

Although their natural timidity still prevents them from openly attacking even two armed persons, however great their number, yet they will, with a patience quite inexhaustible, watch a cottage or a field for days together, until the unsuspecting inhabitants afford some opening, of which the savages instantly avail themselves, and suddenly spear to death the defenceless victims of their indiscriminate vengeance; and success in various instances now seems to have made them as eager in this mode of warfare (their object being to plunder as well as to destroy the white inhabitants,) as they were in pursuing the kangaroo. Two Europeans who will face them will drive 50 savages before them, but still they return and watch until their unerring spears can bring some victim to the ground.

Windschuttle follows this quotation from Arthur with the observation:

Nothing here resembles the grudging respect of an old soldier for his adversaries. In this context, Arthur’s use of the term ‘warfare’ does not concede to the Aborigines any status as warrior counterparts. It is a figure of speech, a surrogate term for mere violence. Similarly, in October 1828, when they made their decision to impose martial law in the settled districts, the members of Arthur’s Executive Council spoke in broad terms of a general uprising by the Aborigines. The minutes recorded: ‘The outrages of the aboriginal Natives amount to a complete declaration of hostilities against the settlers generally.’ However, on the same page, the council acknowledged the reality of the Aborigines’ lack of either political or military organisation: ‘so totally do they appear to be without government amongst themselves, that the Council much doubt if any reliance could be placed upon any negotiation which might be entered into with those who appear to be their chiefs, or with any tribe collectively.’

The evidence about what happened on the Aborigines’ side of the frontier in the 1820s shows it did not amount to warfare in any plausible meaning of the term. The overwhelming majority of the Aborigines’ targets were not troops or police but the convict stockmen who worked as assigned servants on the most outlying land of the white settlements.

(Windschuttle 2002, pp 98-99)

2. The Aborigines were neither patriots nor nationalists.

Windschuttle says:

For the guerilla warfare thesis [of Plomley, Ryan and Reynolds – IM] to be credible, these acts have to be elevated above the level of crime or revenge. For this they needed two qualities: a political objective and a form of organization to achieve their end. It is true, as Reynolds demonstrates, that there were some settlers in the early colonial period who interpreted Aboriginal violence as patriotism and the defence of their country. But the fact that Reynolds has to rely entirely on colonists to express these ideas is illuminating in itself. Despite their best efforts Reynolds, Ryan and Plomley have never found a statement made by a tribal Aborigine during the Black War that expressed a patriotic or nationalist sentiment.

There is not even a statement of this kind to be found in the diaries of George Augustus Robinson in which he records in considerable detail the numerous conversations he had with Aborigines between 1829 and 1834. Robinson himself thought the Aborigines were patriotic and wrote in November 1829 that ‘they have a tradfition among them that the white men have usurped their territory.’ [Robinson reference supplied in original .-IM] But this is Robinson speaking, not an Aborigine, and was recorded in his diary before his expedition started out.

(Windschuttle 2002, pp 99-100)

“Reynolds, Ryan and Plomley have never found a statement made by a tribal Aborigine during the Black War that expressed a patriotic or nationalist sentiment.” The fact that the patriotic sentiment expressed was second-hand via Robinson and in any case was not made during the arbitrary period of ‘during the Black War’ somehow disqualifies it. This is odd, given that Windschuttle sets out to prove that nationalism and patriotism were concepts and feelings completely unknown to the Tasmanians.

3. The Aborigines had no political organisation, concepts, or sense of ‘collective interest’.

Windschuttle says:

If the Aborigines really had political objectives, then, to give themselves at least a platform for negotiation, they would have made the colonists well aware of them. The fact that they never in twenty-five years made any political approaches to the British, who they knew were much more powerful and numerous than they, and never attempted any kind of meeting, bargaining or negotiation with them, speaks of a people who not only had no political objectives but no sense of a collective interest of any kind.

(Windschuttle 2002, p 101)

4. Aboriginal crime against white society arose out of the Aboriginal culture.

Windschuttle says:

The reasons why Aboriginal thieves had little compunction about killing anyone they found in their way, like Mary McCasker, was that their own culture had no sanctions against the murder of anyone outside their immediate clan. Internecine warfare was rife in indigenous society and killing others was a common and familiar practice among Aboriginal males. Indeed… the stories the Tasmanian Aborigines told around their campfires often recorded their pleasure in the death and pain they could inflict on anyone outside their own group. They told Robinson they enjoyed killing. ‘He has heard them boast with much pleasure of the murders they have committed on the whites’ [Reference provided in original – IM] It is clear from the contemporary reports about Aboriginal killings of many white settlers that their murders were incidental accompaniments to robbery. The whites were unarmed and posed no deterrent to the Aborigines’ main objective. They were killed simply because they could be.

Overall, then, the spread of white settlement in the 1820s was certainly a major cause of the increase in black violence, but not for the reasons the orthodox school proposes. Far from generating black resentment, the expansion of settlement instead gave the Aborigines more opportunity and more temptation to engage in robbery and murder, two customs they had come to relish.

(Windschuttle 2002, pp128-129)

5. Aboriginal crime brought white retaliation.

Windschuttle says:

In every case, even the hardest attitudes were generated solely by the desire to stop the blacks from assaulting and murdering whites. They would have been a peculiar people if they had not felt the urge to retaliate. Despite the restraints of their culture and religion, and the admonishments of their government, the settlers of Van Diemen’s Land were only human.

(Windschuttle 2002, pp 348-349)

What Windschuttle describes across points 4 and 5 above is a vendetta, though the fact appears to escape him.

Having taken time out from fighting the Postmodernist deconstructionism that sets out to throw back the covers on defence of privilege, Windschuttle seeks to construct a new mythology that does precisely the same thing in a reciprocal way. His defence of privilege takes the form of an attack on underprivilege: that of the extinct race that is now in no position to fight back.

Here is a very brief history of the world: The human species was specially created, or else it evolved from mammalian precursors. After that, it did things.

Contradict that if you dare; but remember please that I said it was a brief history.

Here are some brief summaries of the antagonistic versions of Tasmanian history:

1. An isolated population of Aborigines inhabited the island for thousands of years, without domesticating a single species of plant or animal, or as far as we know, exterminating one. They never got control over the plant species, but fitted themselves in to the fire-based ecology of the dominant eucalypts. British colonists arrived, and began to change the ecology of the island and thus the resources available to the Aborigines. The Aborigines tried to resist and reverse those changes. They had some success but were overcome in the end, moved to settlements by the Europeans, and there the pure–breeding line went to extinction. That is, the race as such was exterminated, meeting the same fate as the Asrawak-Tainos of Hispaniola and Cuba after the Spanish colonisation of the Americas.

2 An isolated population of Aborigines inhabited the island for thousands of years. British colonists arrived, and began to change the ecology by hunting game and introducing sheep and cattle. The resources available to the Aborigines went into decline, and the Aborigines responded. They robbed colonists’ huts, killed some of them, and resisted colonists’ attempts to control them. Though they had some success, the colonists and their government responded by treating them as animals to be either shot out, or shut out and locked away. A guerilla war ensued. Most of the surviving population was eventually persuaded to resettle in reserves, first on Flinders Island and then at Oyster Cove. There their death rate rapidly overtook their birth rate, leaving only people of mixed Aboriginal and European descent to constitute the Aboriginal population of Tasmania.

3. An isolated population of Aborigines inhabited the island for thousands of years, without domesticating a single species of plant or animal. But life was too hard for them in many ways, particularly since their technology was primitive. They went as a population into a long, slow and irreversible decline, at a point along which British colonists arrived, bringing with them Christianity, the world’s best technology, and a variety of domesticated animals and plants. The Aborigines rapidly saw the potential in using dogs in their hunts for game, which game never went into decline enough to deprive them of food, particularly since the colonists only occupied a small percentage of the available land. But the Aborigines found that pillaging settlers’ stores was easier than hunting. In such conflict as there was, more colonists were killed than were Aborigines. But it never escalated into what could be called a war, partly because the Aborigines began to die of diseases inadvertently introduced by the colonists. The decline of the Aboriginal population was not checked, and much of the blame rests on the misguided policy of settling them on ‘reserves’, which were quite inadequate for their long-term needs or even survival. In the circumstances and historical setting, the state and the white population tried to ensure the Aborigines’ survival, but could do little to help them.

The dissonance between accounts 2 and 3 is the basis of the Australian ‘history wars’. Account number 1 is a summary of the case I put forward in this piece of work. At the heart of the issue lies the question of moral responsibility, with conservatives eschewing the ‘black armband’ histories of their more left-oriented opponents, and condemning left historiography along with the trendy Postmodernism those opponents allegedly profess. Their opponents on the left accuse them of seeking to replace a black armband with a white blindfold. If Version 3 prevails, the white population can be seen to have expressed regret but accepted no responsibility for the fate of the Aborigines. We can be as comfortable with our history as Prime Minister (1996-2007) John Howard wanted us to be.

One problem for this third version of events is that it is comfortability-driven, when the historian’s task, as Windschuttle so rightly says, is finding the truth; not generating a beach-umbrella mythology we can all relax beneath.

If version 3 should fail to bear scrutiny and lose, as seems most likely at this point in time, what moral consequences would follow? Can the present white population of Tasmania be condemned for genocide, for collectively doing to the Tasmanians what was done, with whatever degree of consciousness at the time, to the thylacines? And most importantly, is compensation not in order?

The difficulty for many of the more militant Aborigines today is that they have to quietly ignore the fact that part of their own ancestry was involved in the very process of dispossession and displacement, if not the physical annihilation, of the black male population that might have occupied those ancestral positions. Had they not done so, those militants would not be exercising any militancy today, because they would simply not be here. Another problem is the either/or choice involved. One is either Aboriginal, or one is white. Part-Aboriginal people who historically have found acceptance by neither white nor ‘full-blood’ population on equal terms, have not needed to seek a third category for themselves as say, Creoles, after precedents in the Americas. Because the ‘full-blood’ population disappeared so rapidly from the lands of the Europale, they did not need to. The mixed-ancestry population became ‘the Aborigines’. As well, it is difficult to see how the present non-Aboriginal population can be saddled with responsibility for deeds done before they were even born, and over which they had no say.

The European encroachment on the unfenced continent that the pre-1788 Aboriginal nations had divided into their separate tribal countries was piecemeal. The encroachment was by individual settlers enclosing it grazing run by grazing run, mining claim by mining claim, farm by farm and suburban block by suburban block. Many said during the process something like ‘the Aborigines can just go somewhere else; there’s still plenty left’ as they did with respect to the wildlife that was being removed at the same time. The encroachment was not carried out by conquering armies, because it did not have to be. The low pre-1788 human population densities of both the mainland and Tasmania, the low annual rainfall and the continental vastness made that unnecessary, and created in Australia what Brian Fitzpatrick rightly called a ‘big man’s frontier’, as distinct from the ‘small man’s frontier’ of North America; the distinction having a marked effect on the character of the colonial populations and the civilisation they created. Further discussion of that issue can be found in Ward (1978) and other works.

But that, as they say, is another story.


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2. Online resources used in preparation of table 4: Pre-European influence island population statistics (p.15)






Papua and New Guinea


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